My three year old daughter shared with me that a fellow pre school student hit her and she promptly reported him to the teacher. I responded by stating:
"Good job telling the teacher Baby," then I quickly caught myself. I then followed up with asking my daughter about the details of the incident. Like I suspected, it was a fellow three year old being a three year old, however my goal wasn't to gather details on the incident.
My goal in having my daughter recant to me her version of the event, was to draw attention to what she could do in the future to protect herself, besides telling the teacher. For example, choose not to play with the student, if she noticed that the student was being moody, and speak sternly to the student to not hit her if any attempt for the incident to repeat itself occurs.
My reason is simple, I don't want my daughter like a significant number of young people, to fall for the illusion that any entity or authority possesses all the solutions to their problems, nothing could be farther from the truth. In my decade plus experience as a clinician I have encountered a lot of young people with no cognitive deficits forgo common sense and place themselves in dangerous circumstances, simply because they believed that others present would and should behave accordingly.
We live at the mercy of each other, simply because people have power. People have the power to do good deeds to help others or commit the most horrific acts to harm others. When we go about our daily lives it is important to remind ourselves that when we witness others behave in accordance to social norms, it is because they choose to, not because they present with a fear of authority. We should teach our children to see authority as a necessary entity and resource, societies use to establish organization and structure in their cultures, and not as the all seeing and all knowing. Adherence to the latter leads to ineptitude in applying basic problem solving skills in everyday social conflicts.
Time after time, I encounter incidents of trauma where a young person placed themselves in great harm because they had become so offended by another other person's decision to go against social norms and insult them. Faced with a lack of knowledge on how to address the situation, they would typically take it upon themselves to scold the person and threaten to report the person, not realizing that this was someone intent on committing harm against their person-hood.
The people most at fault for young people adhering to the mindset of how well others should behave towards them, are the adults in their lives. As someone who spent most of my career working in residential settings, I too have been guilty of coming down hard on those students who mistreated their fellow peers, with very little attention given to the student who was bullied, except to ask him if he was okay, and instruct that student to report to me and other staff should the incident repeat itself. From my early experience, the incident would repeat itself, and predictably I would serve up a combination of suspended privileges, writing assignments and sometimes manual labor as consequences, until the next episode.
This all changed when I was introduced to the concept of helping to empower students who were prone to bulling. After my initial training, I began practicing this approach with the students who were being bullied and harassed by their peers, at the program I worked at. While I would still serve the harasser with consequences, I began spending more time with the recipient of the harassment, processing the details of the incidents, what actions they took to take care of themselves and then introducing them to cognitive strategies designed to bring the harassment to an end.
I remember practicing this approach with a fourteen year old I worked with. Prior to my training, approximately every two weeks he would report an incident in which he was being harassed by either a roommate or a group member. We had even switched room assignments, and yet, his new roommates seemed to relish in picking on him. Once I began working with him in recognizing his role in these incidents, and practicing cognitive strategies in working things out with his peers, his ordeal stopped- almost overnight. Three months went by and he was no longer reporting being picked on, despite my frequent check ins with him.
Authority, in the lives of children and adolescents is good thing. It provides a necessary sense of security in their worlds as their mature. However, from an early an age as possible, young people need to understand that authority and subsequently, adults in their lives have their limitations. Understanding the limitations of authority, encourages young people to develop skills sets necessary for collaborating and negotiating with their peers in resolving their disagreements.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC, a professional counseling private practice located in Tucson AZ.